Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Michael Coetzee - an activist who was 'the best of the best'

Michael Coetzee’s passing away brings with it a profound sense of loss but also a reminder of the organising style of this gentle but highly effective activist. Coetzee has since 2002 served Parliament, first as deputy secretary but more recently as secretary. But, for me, what stands out most is his striking contribution during the heady eighties and his powerful expression of leadership in those times.
In the eighties, when the struggle was at its boldest and most wide-ranging, people like Coetzee were the salt of the struggle and the vital middle layer that made the struggle so resilient, rooted and effective. They did so by providing information to communities and making links between the local level and larger processes. They built support for non-racialism not just through strident rhetoric but on the basis of community organisation. They helped build the appeal and popularity of leaders of the mass democratic movement; because communities knew and trusted such activists, community members were willing to accept these leaders whom they did not know but had been rapidly elevated to national leadership roles. In short (in a country riven by divisions and unevenness and for communities caught between the past and future) such activists helped to stitch together the struggle.
Michael (or Mikey as he was known to friends) was at one level easy-going and humorous. But he could switch in minutes and engage reflectively on serious matters. He had an astute analytical sense. He could effortlessly link local popular struggles occurring in the eighties to events like June 16, to the vision of ANC’s founders, to the "pillars" of the liberation struggle, to anti-colonial struggles and to global systems of oppression and exploitation.
Activists like Michael knew (almost instinctively) how to build a movement. At a certain point, they were too young to be formal leaders; or they generally did not see themselves in figurehead roles. But they were leaders in so many other ways; they were the walking evidence of a leader-filled movement. They could be sent anywhere with very little apart from a contact name and, relying on their initiative, they would make their way and begin organising. In so many ways, Michael was the best of the best. For him, the overriding and yet simple and obvious goal was to advance the movement for freedom He was a prime example of activists who are driven by a clear mission, who are skilled social change practitioners, who rise above hidden agendas and who maintain a selfless commitment to the end.
Speaking to others (who knew him) after his passing away on 13 June 2014, it is clear that Michael is remembered with respect and veneration. I recall my own moments of engagement with him over the years. In discussion, he always provided insight, wisdom and a clear exposition about possible ways to go forward. But the start and the end of meeting would always be ‘real’ at a human level; moments in which to find a shared sense of belonging. In this regard, Michael always exuded warmth and a genuine welcome. A reminder that, despite painful realities and many aspects to the contrary, the struggle was also a place of friendships and profound human connection. 
Michael leaves behind his wife Bridgette, his son Matthew and his mother Bertha and siblings Alexandra and Reggie. And he also leaves a compelling legacy of selflessness and activism as well as pockets of comrades/colleagues/friends who honour him for the life he led.

Frank Meintjies

No comments: